When Liu Xia asked for her husband’s medical records from his time in prison, officials refused to let her see them: They insisted he had been given weekly checkups and that everything came up normal until the May 23 cancer diagnosis that led to his release on medical parole. Yet many of Liu’s supporters remain suspicious, as China has a history of withholding medical treatment to get rid of political prisoners.
“We don’t know if they purposefully delayed treatment until it was late-stage cancer or if the disease was caused by the food or environment in the prison,” said Yu Jie, a fellow activist and a close friend of Liu. “If China democratizes in the future, these are things we will need to look into.”
WHAT MADE LIU, a former professor at Beijing Normal University and Chinese literary critic, such a threat to the Communist government that Beijing froze relations with Norway after his Nobel Prize win?
“He is very straightforward and genuine; he’s not afraid to share his thoughts,” Yu said of his friend. As a major contributor to Charter 08, a manifesto calling for basic freedoms, human rights, and democratic reform in China, Liu frightened the government with his ability to unite Chinese intellectuals to his cause. For that, and for his refusal to leave China, officials sentenced him to 11 years in prison for “instigating subversion of state power.”
Born in Changchun in northeast China, Liu was a teenager when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, closing down schools and sending Liu and his family to a commune in Inner Mongolia. Liu looked back at that time as a blessing, since it allowed him to escape the school system’s Communist indoctrination. Instead he devoured books, including some banned by the government, and learned to think for himself.
Once universities reopened following the death of Mao Zedong, Liu studied Chinese literature at Jilin University, and went on to pursue a master’s degree and Ph.D. at Beijing Normal University. While earning his doctorate, he began teaching as a lecturer and gained acclaim for his literary critiques of popular writers and of established ideas such as communism and traditional Chinese Confucianism. Yu said that although Liu did not spend much time in the West, he thought more like a Western scholar than his Chinese peers. Liu frequently read Western works such as those of Plato, Kant, and Nietzsche, and encouraged China to pursue a government system similar to that of the West.
When Liu, while visiting Columbia University in New York City in 1989, heard news of college students filling Tiananmen Square to demonstrate for political reform, he hurriedly returned to Beijing to join them. He stayed with the students on June 4 even as the tanks rolled in and the Chinese army opened fire on students and bystanders. Liu tried negotiating with the army and persuaded students to leave the square, saving countless lives.
A day later, authorities arrested Liu and imprisoned him for two years for his involvement as a “black hand” behind the protests. After his release, officials maintained a tight rein on his influence: The university fired him from his teaching position and the government banned the publication of his writing.
Yet with the advent of the internet, Liu reached a wide audience by publishing his articles in Hong Kong and Taiwanese media and sharing essays online. He advocated changing society at the grassroots level with the help of human rights lawyers. Rather than an abrupt change, individuals “pushing for a free and democratic China should concentrate on gradual change in society and expect that this will eventually force a change in regime,” Liu wrote in an essay in 2006. Unlike other Chinese activists, he did not agree that China should reunify with Taiwan and Hong Kong, but rather supported autonomy. For these radical ideas, the government jailed him three more times—most recently in December 2008 for his work on drafting Charter 08.
LIU DIDN’T THINK CHARTER 08 WOULD cause any problems, as the manifesto’s language was much milder than essays he had previously written. In 2008, Liu, his friend Yu, and other activists carefully crafted the document to ensure a wide range of intellectuals could endorse it, often meeting at a friend’s restaurant to circumvent government wiretaps of their phones. Only Liu Xia feared Charter 08 would land her husband back behind bars.
With Liu’s prominence, he convinced 70 scholars to sign the manifesto. By the time the document was unveiled, it included 303 signatures from public intellectuals, leaders of workers’ and farmers’ groups, and some government officials. After it was published online, more than 12,000 people signed it.
It was the first time since 1989 that intellectuals had rallied around a common cause, and the government was worried. Before Charter 08, the government had successfully silenced scholars by increasing their salaries and benefits, then threatening to take away their cushy jobs if they criticized the Chinese Communist Party. Those who spoke out anyway were crushed: Officials barred them from speaking to the media, harassed their family members, and restricted their freedoms.